It’s the flop musical with the best legs. Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along closed, notoriously, after 16 poorly attended performances in 1981. That sundered the relationship between Sondheim and producer Hal Prince for more than 20 years. If that were not enough, Sondheim and his librettist George Furth had based the musical on a nearly forgotten collaboration of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, also titled Merrily We Roll Along (1934), another flop.
After some tinkering with the book and the addition of more songs, the thing began to win friends and influence people. The current production by the Syracuse University Drama Department, at the Syracuse Stage complex, 820 E. Genesee St., is the second in recent decades. So here we have a show about a guy who can’t keep friends, and it really does keep rolling, if not exactly merrily.
The action runs backward. In the opening scene it’s 1976, the Hollywood home of Franklin Shepard, a wealthy producer and former songwriter. No one is having fun, as insults and recriminations are flying around the room. In successive scenes we move steadily back in time, 1973, 1969, until we reach Oct. 4, 1957, when three idealistic young people are on a rooftop, contemplating the transit across the night sky of Sputnik, the Soviet satellite, and what the future will be opening for them.
They are Franklin Shepard (Kyle Anderson), 20 years old, and his two pals, Charley Kringas (Dan Reardon) and Mary Flynn (Avery Bryce Epstein). They sing “Our Time,” unusually sweet for Sondheim, and link their three little fingers together. Looks like a happy ending. Of course we know that in less than 20 years the three will endure emotional blowouts and won’t be talking to one another.
Despite what this may sound like, Merrily We Roll Along is easy to follow. And many of its subtleties are shouted. True, some of the swirling action in the first act is a little puzzling, but agreeably so. Why does a fat, drunken woman, Mary Flynn, denounce the entire room as she leaves? Why does a hapless vagrant, Joe Josephson (Danny Harris Kornfeld), look for a handout? These questions are answered soon enough.
In many plays the first-act exposition gives us just a bit more than we can grasp or items we don’t understand in later acts. What Merrily delivers instead, rivaled only by Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, are sharp doses of irony. As the action proceeds we know when characters are making catastrophic decisions, are lying, and are fooling themselves.
As early as Pal Joey (1940), musicals have featured protagonists who were caddish or at least less than admirable. Franklin Shepard, when we learn the whole story, is no monster, not Hannibal Lecter nor the Roy Cohn of Angels in America. He’s merely a worshipper of the bitch goddess success, what William James called the national malady. In his quest for what success brings, wealth and acclaim, he betrays those closest to him. He does not value the worth of the people closest to him and crassly ignores the woman who loves him the most, Mary Flynn, his intellectual and artistic peer. Given that an early backer complains that Shepard writes songs you can’t hum, Sondheim teasingly invites comparison with himself.
In many ways, however, Merrily We Roll Along is an ideal show for a university company. At their oldest most of the characters are only about 40 and they are near the student actors’ age at the end. And so many of them! Part of the reason both the 1934 and 1981 Merrilys closed early is that they had huge casts, something to be welcomed here. The 12 members of the ensemble not only keep in motion in Andrea Leigh-Smith’s many dance numbers, nearly all of them get a gag line or a dramatic bit, even if the program does not cite their name.
The six students in the plum lead roles have all been judiciously chosen by director Brian Cimmet, and each one achieves some dazzling moments. Kyle Anderson (also Orlando in last spring’s As You Like It) does most of the heavy lifting as the heel Shepard, delivering about half of the lines. Multitalented, Anderson delivers a rich, expressive voice in the five numbers where he leads, and he actually plays the piano—keyboard out to audience—when he has to. His guilt and anguish in the opening scenes invite an empathy the character may not deserve. Strangely, director Cimmet has him change physically the least over the 19 years of the play’s action.
The prime female role, Avery Bryce Epstein’s Mary Flynn, is the acerbic critic and novelist filled with heart. Kaufman and Hart modeled the original character on legendary wit Dorothy Parker. How can you not love a woman who grows thinner, younger and more demure before your eyes? Costumer Danielle Hodgins always dresses her, however, out of step with the crowd. Epstein, who distinguished herself last summer in three roles at Cortland Repertory Theatre, tells us she’s headed for a bright future in musical theater.
Dan Reardon’s Charley Kringas is the sidekick who kicks back. His first-act rant, “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” a musical diatribe, is the kind of thing that only Sondheim writes. Not only does it stop the show in the second scene, but it lets us feel the bile that has permeated the major relationships.
A show-stopper of quite a different order is the solo “Not a Day Goes By,” sung by Beth (Olivia Gjurich), Shepard’s discarded first wife. It’s one of the few songs from the show that has had much of a life apart from the show, and it’s the only one so romantic that it could be, for example, performed at a wedding. It’s heartbreaking when we first hear it because Beth is singing it at the divorce court. In the second act we hear it again, expressing Beth’s original declaration of love. That’s what Merrily We Roll Along asks of you.
Gussie Carnegie (Callie Baker) is the golddigger with a heart of brass who wrecks Shepard’s home and then gets as disgusted with him as everyone else has. Nominally a villainess, Baker’s Gussie has two terrific numbers, more memorably with the ironic “Musical Husbands” that opens the second act. Joe Josephson (Danny Harris Kornfeld) is Cassie’s producer-husband, whom she exploits and discards. Kornfeld excels at that thankless task of looking twice his age. Speaking with a Yiddish accent, he has a gift for pathos and fey humor. And Cortland fifth grader Séamus Gailor as Franklin’s son matches the professionalism of the college students.
Although Brian Cimmet’s program bio says this is his eighth appearance with the company, the experienced Broadway conductor is making his directing debut here. If he wants to knock our eyes out, he has succeeded. Action is staged on two levels, designed by Sang Min Kim, with a wide staircase in between. As it is on casters, the staircase can split to make a confined space on the lower level, beautifully lighted by Allison P. Shumway. Danielle Hodgins’ 100-plus costumes tell us how time recedes better than the calendar does.
When a Sondheim show fails, his most fanatical followers charge that the audience just isn’t up for it. Now we are. Despite all its jagged edges and a hero we can’t love, Merrily We Roll Along has here become a boffo crowd-pleaser.
This production runs through Sunday, Oct. 7. See Times Table for information.